The Bucknellian

New Paterno film intense, but comes too soon

Graphic by Jared Shapiro

Graphic by Jared Shapiro

Sam Rosenblatt, Opinions Editor

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HBO debuted their television movie “Paterno” on April 7. The film depicts Penn State football coach Joe Paterno’s days in the wake of the child sex abuse scandal that tarnished the revered image of both the school and Paterno himself.

The movie also highlights the stories of Sara Ganim, a reporter for Harrisburg’s Patriot-News who helped break the scandal, as well as the Paterno family and former Penn State President Graham Spanier.

“Paterno” is certainly powerful and provides an interesting picture of the inside story of those involved in the aftermath of the scandal. However, I fundamentally disagree with the choice to produce such a film just seven years after this trauma. I understand that audiences — myself included — feed on historical dramas that allow us to relive the triumphs and tragedies of past figures, but I think “Paterno” may do more to reopen old wounds than add a new perspective on the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal.

Of course, there is no unwritten rule of how long one should wait to produce such a film, but it’s undeniable that films about tragic stories must navigate a fine line between being appropriate and offensive. “Paterno” may not be as controversial as “United 93” (2006), and “Patriot’s Day” (2016), which tell brave stories related to the September 11th attacks and Boston Marathon bombings, respectively, but were released uncomfortably soon after the events. Still, I wish such a project was delayed at least a few more years when the disgust of the Sandusky case and Paterno’s fall from grace were not so fresh in our minds.

Not only was the film released too soon, but before HBO took over production, ICM Films had signed Al Pacino in September 2012 to play Paterno in what became this HBO special. Less than a year after the events of the film transpired, and just eight months after Paterno passed away, opportunists were already attempting to seize the story line.

The film also seemed to lack a clear direction — at times it was reminiscent of “Spotlight” (2015) during Ganim’s quest for the truth about Penn State’s failure to address the situation, and at other times connecting the audience more to the football coach and his family as in “We Are Marshall” (2006). This back-and-forth dynamic felt awkward given the context of the movie.

It’s also worth noting that this film is a docudrama, not a documentary. While “Paterno” does present a mostly accurate story of an aging “JoePa,” some flashbacks in the film were far too dramatic. Many appeared through the lens of an MRI machine as Paterno visits the hospital for his deteriorating health.

The most absurd moment, however, came after Paterno’s wife recalls that they had let Sandusky swim in the pool with their children when they were young. This triggers a dream sequence in which Paterno sees a swimming pool full of children (including his own), jumps in, and struggles as he sinks to the bottom while Sandusky interacts with his children above the surface.

Despite these complaints, I thought “Paterno” was intense and hard to turn away from. The film gave proper tribute to JoePa’s work of building Penn State’s reputation, not only for top-tier football but also for top-tier academics. It also demonstrated how his failing memory and moral failure contributed to scandal. Moreover, “Paterno” shed an important light on victim-blaming and the reluctance to share one’s story, especially in the today’s context of the #MeToo movement.

Nevertheless, I wish the film industry had held off from jumping to create this biopic. For those impacted by the scandal, including its victims, the Penn State community, and fans of college football, wounds must heal before they are reopened. This dramatization still feels as if it happened yesterday, and in this case I think it’s important to move forward before we look back.

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New Paterno film intense, but comes too soon